- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we have been taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read my explanation of the series, which was featured in the Nation blog each morning as we counted down the programs from 20 to 1. You can read the entire series here.
Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989
Vince Carter (1998)
Antawn Jamison (1998)
Rasheed Wallace (1995)
Jerry Stackhouse (1995)
Ty Lawson (2009)
Sixth man: Rick Fox (1991)
The rest: Danny Green, Raymond Felton, J.R. Reid, Ed Davis, Brendan Haywood, Marvin Williams, Scott Williams, George Lynch, Eric Montross, Wayne Ellington, Brandan Wright, Jeff McInnis, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, John Henson, Tyler Zeller, Tyler Hansbrough, David Noel, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Joseph Forte, Shammond Williams, Makhtar N'Diaye, Serge Zwicker, Hubert Davis, Pete Chilcutt, Clifford Rozier, Kevin Salvadori, Derrick Phelps, Matt Wenstrom
Why they're ranked where they are: We're here. We made it. The end.
In a month's time, 19 teams have been ranked according to the quality of their former players' pro careers. Arguments were made. Arguments were hedged. The darkest, most gloriously distracting depths of Basketball-Reference.com were excavated. Comments were submitted. Retorts were fired. Laughs were shared. Tears were shed. Tweets were, um, tweeted.
There is but one final formality: crowning our Official 2013 Path to the Draft Highlander. There can be only one.
That's actually the wrong way to view these rankings, which is an important point, one we'll discuss in detail below. But first, we have some business to attend to. We have to talk about North Carolina, our selection for No. 1 overall in this exercise. To do so, we have to begin by with one of the most gifted NBA players of the past 25 years. We have to talk about one of the most productive NBA players of the past 25 years. And we have to talk about one of the most depressing basketball players of the past 25 years. The best part? They're all the same player! That player, of course, is Vince Carter.
First, let's run through the rest of UNC's case, which is much more straightforward. Antawn Jamison may not be anyone's idea of a Hall of Famer, but he has had a long and almost always productive career; at his peak, he was one of the most versatile (and quirky) small forwards in the game. Rasheed Wallace often got more attention for his inability to stop freaking out on officials all the time than his actual basketball ability, but during his prime he was one of the best interior defenders in the league, the best player on a handful of title-contending Trail Blazers teams and arguably the best player during Detroit's 2004 NBA title run despite being traded into that mix in the middle of the season.
Likewise, it's easy to forget how good Jerry Stackhouse was, but Stackhouse -- who is still residing on NBA benches in what is now his 18th season -- was, from age 21 to 28, one of the best scorers in the world. Ty Lawson is one of the best young point guards in the NBA, who overcomes his lack of size with blazing speed and intuitive decision-making. Rick Fox was a glue guy on three of the best teams in NBA history (2000, 2001 and 2002 Lakers), playing in all 82 games in each of those seasons). Danny Green is one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA and a huge reason the Spurs pushed LeBron James & Co. to Game 7 a week ago.
The rest of the case really relies on quantity. The Raymond Feltons, Brendan Haywoods, George Lynches, Eric Montrosses, J.R. Reids and Wayne Ellingtons of the world don't do much for me as NBA individuals, but in aggregate they represent a long-term trend of UNC products playing variably necessary roles, and making plenty of lucre while doing so.
With that out of the way, let's get back to the most fascinating -- and case-making, or breaking -- player on this list: Vince Carter.
Carter is an immensely frustrating player to put in a historical context, which makes sense, because he might be the most frustrating player of my lifetime. There are legitimate and equally vehement cases both for and against his "legacy," for lack of a better word.
The case for goes a little something like this: His raw individual accomplishments are undeniably impressive. In 14 seasons and 37,267 minutes (third most of any UNC player ever, and counting), Carter has pumped in 22,223 points, the most of any Tar Heel in NBA history not named Michael Jordan. Carter's career per-game averages of 20.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists make him arguably the second-most productive UNC product in NBA history. Carter was the rookie of the year in 1999; was voted to the All-Star Game eight straight times between 2000 and 2007; averaged 26, 7 and 6 from 1999-2002; and scored more than 20 points per game for 10 straight seasons.
Of course, Vinsanity (or Half-Man, Half-Amazing, if you're not into the whole brevity thing) wasn't a quietly productive, head-down kind of guy; he was responsible for some of the most memorable NBA moments of the past 15 years, and more face-melting highlights than I could possibly hope to count. Dunk contests don't factor into our rankings here, obviously, but still: Carter's dunk contest performance in 2000 might be the greatest of all time, or at least since Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Either way, it hasn't been remotely approached since. In 30 years, no one will care that the U.S. won gold at the 2000 Olympics, but they will remember Carter's dunk over 7-foot-2 French center Frederic Weis. (The French press named it le dunk de la mort -- "the dunk of death." If it isn't the best dunk ever, it's certainly got the best name.)
The other half of the Carter story is where the depression sinks in. Good as he was, Carter never led a team past the second round of the playoffs. Good as he was, in 2005 he blatantly tanked his way out of Toronto at the first hint of dissatisfaction, and then later, with the New Jersey Nets, openly admitted it. (Toronto fans rightfully revile Carter, which, seeing as he played a not-insignificant role in building that city's now-thriving basketball culture in the first place, is doubly sad.) Good as he was, Carter never played defense. Good as he was, Carter flopped and flailed like every bit of contact was a mortal wound, and zestily played up every minor injury. Good as he was -- and seriously, you guys, the dude was good -- Carter could have lurched toward this fall, in what will be his 15th NBA season, as a diminished but revered legend. Instead, he's practically a cautionary tale. Good as he was, he never seemed to care.
These two narratives collide in weird, revealing ways. The best example I can think of came from Grantland's Bill Simmons, who, in his 2009 "Book of Basketball," spent three pages and five footnotes tearing Carter to shreds. Carter, Simmons writes, is "the premier 'so talented, shoulda been so much better' guy of his generation" who "milked injuries and collisions like nobody we've ever seen" who became "one of the reasons [Simmons] wanted to write this book: fifty years from now, we wouldn't want an NBA fan to flip through some NBA guide and decide that Vince Carter was a worthy basketball star." It's an economical evisceration so convincing you almost forget that you're reading all of it in the context of Simmons' Hall of Fame Pyramid … where Carter is listed as the 83rd-best player in NBA history.
Simmons has since revised that list, but Carter remains, and he's hardly the only historical authority to place Vinsanity among the best 100 players of all time.
That, right there, is the Vince Carter Conundrum, and if you're wondering if there's a reason I just wrote way too many words about it, here you go: I'd be willing to bet your feelings on whether or not North Carolina should be ranked No. 1 overall on this list have a lot to do with your reaction to the words "Vince Carter." For me, there's also only so much credit we can subtract for what could have been.
Despite all that apathy, Carter was still one of the best 100 players in NBA history, and clearly one of the best drafted out of any college since 1989. That, combined with the Tar Heels' overall productivity, longevity and depth, is why they're ranked No. 1.
Why they could be ranked higher: This is the other reason I just spent so much time on Carter: the value for this field is null. Moving on!
Why they could be ranked lower: Above, I mentioned that the zero-sum, there-can-be-only-one style of looking at these rankings is probably the wrong way to approach it. Why? I'll tell you why.
Because we intentionally avoided strict criteria. I can't stress this point enough. If we wanted to, we could have tallied up All-Star Games, first-team All-NBA appearances, NBA titles, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, perfect scores in the dunk contest (kidding!) and as many other sets of quantifiable data about NBA players that we could get our hands on, which is a lot. I could have thrown these things into a spreadsheet and come back with a tidy, analytically driven system. There is plenty of data on NBA players in the world, and I hear computers are pretty good at compiling that data in rapid fashion. We could have gone this route.
Instead, we actively chose to keep our criteria -- "best collection of the best NBA careers," basically -- as simple and open to interpretation as possible.
NBA careers contain multitudes. They are more than the Arabic numerals that chart the parameters of a player's rise, peak and inevitable decline. They are epic human experiences, stories told over the span of decades. Understanding them means finding the sweet spot between the numbers, our eyes and what we know about a player outside of it all -- his personality, his work ethic, his status among his peers. That's the good stuff, the stuff that makes our attempts to understand this incredible game so rewarding in the first place. That's the part that's fun.
All of which is precisely why I don't think anyone should freak out too much about UNC being No. 1 over Georgetown, UConn, Kentucky, Duke or even Arizona. The overall distance between North Carolina and Georgetown is infinitesimal and endlessly debatable, not unlike the careers of Vince Carter and Allen Iverson. The difference between UNC and Arizona at No. 6 is relatively tiny to the difference between Arizona and, say, No. 13 UNLV. The closer we got to the top, the tighter -- and thus more fun -- things got.
So, yeah, Carolina could rank behind Georgetown. That Hoyas' group is smaller, sure, but sort of insane in its ratio of draft picks to Hall of Famers. Which do you value more? Is Iverson overrated by traditionalists? Underrated by analytics? Did we grant too much weight toward veterans or young studs, role players or stars? Is a long NBA career a credit in and of itself? Or is it better to burn out than fade away?
This is the start of the conversation, not the final word.
What’s ahead? Back to the Tar Heels themselves: More than any other young UNC product in the league, it is going to be very interesting to see what lies ahead for Harrison Barnes. Barnes went from much-hyped prospect to much-maligned bust to much-beshrugged NBA draftee in the matter of two mostly good years at North Carolina, and while his 2012-13 rookie season was decent, he punctuated it with some truly impressive performances in the Warriors' playoffs run. At minimum, Barnes is practically guaranteed a long NBA career. The question is whether it will be as a nice rotation piece or as something much more.
Final thoughts: I really hope you had as much fun reading these things as we had researching and writing them. If not, please direct all emails, tweets and Westerosi carrier ravens to Myron.
I guess that just about covers it, huh?